Matthew, Pygmalion, and Parkinson — three names that affect your learning, teaching, and everything (life, universe, and everything)

What do a New Testament Personality and a Greek Mythological character have in common with a mid-twentieth century British Civil Service Expert? The former two were inspirations for how learning may be affected, and the latter explained how productive we can be in completing our tasks. So, when you mix them all together, you get a soup of explanation and understanding, and perhaps some tricks of how you can exponentially improve your learning. Not only yours, but your students’, children’s, friends’, colleagues’,… I’d go so far as to claim — even cats’! (After all, I AM a certified Feline behaviorist and psychologist!).

This soup of successful learning has three ingredients:

(starting from the chronological order of the inspirational names)

  • High expectations, as well as expecting the success

So, let’s start with Henry Higgins and Liza Doolittle. G.B. Shaw was on to something, and he played with the mythical reference to entertain the early twentieth century audience with his impressive phonetic transformation of the proverbial flower girl at the Covent Garden into a supposed Hungarian (or some other Central European) duchess, only by teaching her how to correctly PR her English, and restrain her behaviour in fancy dresses. This whole venture was formally stamped and scientifically proven about half a century later, in 1964, by psychologists Rosenthal and Jacobsen. They proved in a one year study that the teachers’ expectations of students affected the students’ performance, and success on the test. In fact, the increased expectations, or perhaps projections, or teachers’ beliefs about how the students should perform, reflected in the increase of the IQ at the end of the year. You see, the reason why Henry Higgins was able to transform Liza was because he believed he could, and because he saw the potential in her. It would be wrong to suppose that THAT was the only reason why he did it — we have to give Liza the credit for all those late hours of reciting ‘The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain’ and ‘How nice of you to let me come’ — but it was definitely a key factor in driving this story towards a successful finish. This is where the caveat needs to be installed. You cannot get on with the progress by simple expectation and/or ‘power of the mind’. This would sound like those self-improvement ‘Secret’ people. However, it is one ingredient that improves the soup. Let’s say, it’s the salt, but definitely not the water!

The Biblical character, or an Apostle, on whichever ideas of belief you are building your point of view, is quite relevant to understand how our learning is inhibited in the long term. The story goes like this (I’m very far from being comfortable to even quote the words from that thick book, so I’ll just paraphrase it): one of the friends of Jesus of Nazareth by the name of Matthew once told to a crowd of people that the ‘god’ (yes, inverted commas!) will give abundance to those who have, and take away from those who have not. Now, my instinct tells me that the hidden reference of ‘what you have or don’t have’ could imply to something like faith, belief, or blind trust in ‘god’, but I’m not aware of the exact context of the situation in which the main persona of this chapter uttered these words (allegedly) about 2000 years ago. Somehow, through centuries, it has been interpreted as materialistic, concrete possession. You would be smart to ask a Catholic priest about that, but I intend to terminate the story here and jump into 1968 when sociologist Robert Merton introduced ‘Matthew effect’ to the world of modern scholars to explain the growing gap between the rich and the poor. I think it was Daisy Buchanan who mockingly said: ‘The rich get richer and the poor get children’. How is this extrapolated and applied to our classrooms? It is the reality that not all children start school with the same level of skills. Even in our language courses within one level, there are always children who perform better orally, or in written language, those who progress quickly, and those who constantly lag behind, or barely keep up. Well, what Matthew effect explains is that because of the initial discrepancy, the ‘weaker ones’ will not enjoy the learning, have motivation, or the skills to acquire the subject matter in given time period, so next year, or next level, they will be even further behind. It is a combination of subjective and objective factors that drive the difference in skill level among students even further, and it is mostly indicative of reading. Matthew effect is crucial to understand in the context of teaching students with dyslexia. Because the students do not have a good reading level when they start school, they will struggle to learn and keep the pace, and do the bare minimum, while those who learned a bit before the school started, find the lessons easy, and process the information quickly. Towards the end of the year, some well-performing students even start reading books for pleasure. When the time comes to stop learning to read — letters, words, sentences, texts — the struggling readers will still be struggling and will not be able to read complex texts in order to learn the subject matter. Now, the game is also on the dimension of acquiring new vocabulary, understanding concepts, phenomena, etc., because — you guessed it — they do not get the new knowledge because they have aversion to reading. They’re not just barely passing the Mother Tongue class, but Science, Geography, History,… It’s a downward spiral that cannot be easily prevented from happening in the later years. Nip it in the bud — that’s the key, before the very beginning! Back to our soup metaphor: mise en place — chop the veggies before putting them in the pot, and they’ll cook quicker.

And then we get to the business solution that probably caused Sweden to cut down the average working week, and explained why big governments are inefficient as opposed to the small ones. In 1955, Cyril Parkinson published an article in The Economist that caused a landslide of effectiveness movement in the governance and business environment. He wrote a book Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress, in which he reiterated the same idea from the article. This one is epic and I feel very comfortable quoting it:

Work expands to fill the time available for its completion

What does that imply in an essence? Well, if you need to create three reports in your 40-hour working week, you will spend 40 hours doing it, or at least pretending to do it. But, if you have only two 8-hour days, you will probably finish it within that timeframe. (Caveat: realistic deadlines for any task completion should be in place.) Enter: procrastination. Parkinson’s law kicked procrastination in the middle of its behind and said that if you give yourself LESS time, you will probably do it. One tip is to assign yourself half the time you think the task will take. Challenge your mental capacity, but always beware of retaining the quality of your work by having clear standards and expectations (ekhm,… Pygmalion?). Let’s resume this conversation in the classroom. You give the students 30 min to complete an essay, a group task or a pair work activity. Perhaps they have two weeks to finish a project? Cut it in half! Express your expectations (Pygmalion) and your belief in their success, explain all steps clearly, pre-teach any needed concepts (Matthew), and set them off to a challenge. Sounds simple! Perhaps you could start small. With time, when you see the students trust you, and feel comfortable and self-sufficient, give them the ambitious challenges. Perhaps, you can brief them at the end about the Parkinson’s Law and how we tend to consume all the time available for doing something — just because it IS available. How is that applicable to the cooking metaphor? If you have the whole morning for that soup, you will boil the chicken and vegetables so they fall apart upon touching them with a spoon, pretty much like a traditional Moroccan cous-cous. Chances are, the soup tastes delicious, but not many micronutrients survived the thermal marathon. Instead, limit your choices to 2–3 vegetables (my favorite combination is pumpkin, tomato, and cabbage), if you are not a vegetarian add (insert preferable meat) stock, and your soup should be done in 30 min. Blend it in a jiffy, and enjoy the goodness of micronutrients as well as extra time.

Now, how do I synthesize all of this into my own learning journey?

If I am starting a new course on Monday, I will definitely read a course introduction and syllabus, perhaps do a google search about the topics, on Sunday. I want that Matthew, or his ‘god’, to give me more, because ‘I have it’. Therefore, the first module will be easy to complete, which will give me an impetus to quickly jump into the next one, and be more committed.

Going through the course outcomes, I will create some more expectations to strive for. I might challenge myself to create a video, an infographic, a presentation, or a comprehensive mind map based on what I learned. I like having a tangible ‘product’ of my learning process.

Lastly, if the course is set for four weeks, I challenge myself to finish it in two. I plan my learning, revising, and assignment time slots, and more often than not, the course is completed within a week.




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Martina Matejas

Martina Matejas


English teacher, yoga instructor, massage therapist and much more. Life in Morocco gives fresh perspective on all the weird accumulated experiences.